When the Holy Spirit chose to kick off a bold new outreach from the Antioch church (Acts 13:1-3), what voice box did He use? I’m inclined to believe it was either Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, or Manaen—or perhaps all of them. And the Spirit is still speaking through people in our day.
It was 1969 when the Spirit spoke to me through my uncle Obie Harrup about planting a church in Richmond, Va. He simply said, “Bob, there are 12 people who want to start a church in the West End of Richmond. Would you be willing to go and see if this is the Spirit’s leading for you to be their pastor?”
If you visit West End Assembly of God today, you’ll find some 2,000 people gathering each Sunday to worship. I’m no longer the lead pastor; I resigned after the first 22 years to become a district superintendent. But I’ve not forgotten how important it was to listen to the Spirit’s voice at every step of planting this church. Why is that? Here are four reasons:
1. If the Spirit is speaking, He supersedes the need for a Plan B. Paul and Barnabas went “on their way by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:4) without any backup plan. My wife, Joan, and I never had any doubt about the church plant in Richmond being successful. Did we have trials, disappointments, setbacks, frustrations? You bet. But we never thought about a bailout strategy. We were all in!
When starting a church, there is too much at stake to waste energy on “What if this doesn’t work?”
It’s paramount to understand that the Spirit speaks through the primary leaders around us. Notice, I said primary leaders. Sometimes there are peripheral leaders with other agendas. Those responsible for making decisions about planters and places need to be in tune with the Spirit.
So in the face of 6 inches of snow on opening day, March 2, 1969, we went forward. Forty-two people showed up! This was truly amazing in a region not comfortable with winter weather.
2. When the Spirit is leading, you can expect miracles. We knew God had to work on our behalf to plant a Pentecostal church in the upscale West End. And God did! One of the biggest surprises was when a person who did not attend our church gave us three acres of prime land on a major thoroughfare.
Every church planter must expect the miraculous. My friend Jason Byars, a church planter in North Melbourne Beach, Fla., took me to a building they wanted to buy. In faith Jason and I laid hands on the front door’s lock and chains, asking God to open these doors for their church. Within a few weeks, they raised $60,000 for a down payment and closed on the building at an unbelievable price.
Every growing church plant, I believe, can tell at least one miracle story.
3. When the Spirit is leading, He connects us with the right people. My dream of planting a Pentecostal church that made sense hit its first snag five weeks after launch Sunday, which was Easter. There was nothing wrong with the Virginia weather by then—but only 28 people showed up. I wasn’t simply disappointed; I was crushed.
I dreaded going to meetings with my peers and having to report such a low Easter attendance. So the Spirit needed to deal with my pride before He could take me to the next level. I surrendered the weekly attendance to His care and focused instead on ways to serve the community.
One night a high school girl showed up at our home obviously in demonic bondage. After we prayed for her deliverance, I can still see the smile that clothed her face. She and her friends began to fill the first couple of rows on Sunday. When the news spread through the community that young people were being turned on to God, social and professional people began to “come and see.”
There is no substitute for the work of the Spirit in changing lives—especially young people—to spur momentum in any church, no matter its size.
4. When the Spirit speaks, He will often talk about multiplication. Before we had our first public meeting, our core group of 12 people had felt led to put in writing that we would plant other churches. Talk about vision! We were imagining other church plants before we were officially opened ourselves.
And God granted our desire. Over the years, West End has planted at least seven other churches. One huge benefit of this planting is it gives new people an opportunity to serve. I witnessed this when a lady became a key board person in one of our church plants after not finding an opening in the larger mother church. The multiplying of gifts is a plan of the Spirit as we plant churches.
A Calling for Every Church
My prayer is that we listen as the Spirit speaks to us about sending out people who want to obey what the Spirit is saying. Like Paul and Barnabas, they will return from time to time and report back to us what God is doing. All of this fans the flame of the Spirit’s fire.
Bob Rhoden is now an executive presbyter with the Assemblies of God. His book, Four Faces of a Leader, was published last year. You can follow him on Twitter @bob_rhoden.
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